Olympic Hockey: Some of India's great men

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Dhyan Chand
Bangalore, Jul 28: Here we take a look at some of the top hockey players from India. This list is not exhaustive and with due respect to all those who have sweated it for Indian hockey at the Olympics, we have randomly selected a few.

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Dhyan Chand (1905-1979): The most prolific hockey player not only in the history of India but perhaps in the annals of world history of the sport. Called the ‘Hockey Wizard', Dhyan Chand is paralleled only by the likes of Sir Donald Bradman and Jesse Owens in other sporting disciplines. Originally known as Dhyan Singh, the man who was once a man in the British Indian Army, used to practice his skills in the game in the moonlight after serving in the army during the day. His colleagues hence gave him the surname 'Chand' after the moon. This could also be a big reason behind the magnificent craftsmanship that Dhyan Chand possessed with the stick.

He was in the Indian hockey team which had won gold in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Games (he was the captain in the 1936 Games). In the 1932 Games, Dhyan Chand and his brother Roop Singh scored eight scores each and India went on to thrash the hosts, USA, 24-1. In the 1936 Games final, India trounced hosts Germany 8-1 and it is said the Great Dictator had offered Dhyan Chand a position in the German army. It is believed that out of sheer disbelief at how Dhyan Chand made his stick talk, some even broke his stick to see if there was any magnet or glue inside. Dhyan Chand was awarded with Padma Bhushan in 1956. August 29, which is his birthday, is celebrated as the National Sports Day every year.

Roop Singh (1910-77): Roop Singh was the brother of the great Dhyan Chand and a part of the teams that won gold medals for the country at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. The man from Gwalior played as the inside left and was considered one of the best in the business. His hits were so powerful that he was asked to be careful so that he did not end up injuring any player on the field. He had scored 10 of India's 24 goals against the USA in the 1932 Games. Also, the Germans were so impressed with his game at the 1936 Games that they had even named a street after him.

Balbir Singh Senior (born in 1924): One of India's best centre-forwards in the game. A member of the gold-winning team in 1948, 1952 and 1956 Games, Balbir Singh Senior had the ability of scoring at will. He was a deadly customer inside the penalty circles. He was the flag-bearer of the Indian contingent at the 1952 and 1956 Games. He was also the member of the Indian side that won silver at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. Post retirement, Balbir Singh had served as the manager of the Indian team at the 1971 and 1975 World Cups and India did well in both these editions. He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 1957, the first hockey player to achieve the feat.

Leslie Claudius (born in 1927): One of the finest right-halves of his time, Claudius started with football and had even played in the IFA Shield. He was part of the team that won three successive gold medals at Olympic hockey between 1948 and 1956. He was also the captain of the team at the 1960 Games that lost to Pakistan in the final. He found a place in the Guinness Book for winning the maximum number of Olympic medals along with Udham Singh Kular (who achieved the feat in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964 editions). He was conferred with the Padma Shri in 1971. His late son Robert had played for India at the 1978 World Cup.

Shankar Laxman (1933-2006): The first goalkeeper to captain an international side, Shankar Laxman was one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Laxman had given up study at the tender age of 13 to play hockey and from 1955 he began to represent Services in the national championship. The man from the army was part of gold-winning teams at the 1956 Olympics and 1958 Asian Games.

However, India's loss to Pakistan in the 1960 Olympic final earned him much criticism but he regained his popularity after India did well at the 1962 Asian Games and reclaimed the gold medal from Pakistan at the 1964 Games. Laxman had captained India at the 1966 Asian Games where India emerged the champions. He did not find a place in the 1968 squad and in 1979, Laxman retired as an honorary captain in the Maratha Light Infantry. Laxman, a recipient of the Arjuna Award and Padma Shri award, spent his last days in utter poverty and died of gangrene at the age of 73. He was cremated with full military honours.

Ajitpal Singh (born in 1947): An outstanding centre-half during his heydays, Ajitpal first played in the 1968 Mexico City. Although, India came third in that year, Singh had caught all eyes for his precise and perfect ball distribution. He was the skipper of the Indian side at the 1970 Bangkok and 1974 Tehran Asian Games besides the 1976 Montreal Games. He was selected in the Asian All-Star team in 1974. Ajitpal Singh's best moment came in 1975 when India beat arch-rivals Pakistan to lift the World Cup, the only time it had won the coveted trophy. Singh is the Chef-De-Mission of the Indian contingent at this year's London Games although he fell ill and his responsibility was later taken over by Brigadier Brigadier PK Muralidharan Raja.

Dhanraj Pillay (born in 1968): An ace Indian striker, Dhanraj Pillay served as the poster boy of Indian hockey for a long time. The man from Kirkee in Maharshtra, Dhanraj fine-tuned himself under the guidance of his elder brother Ramesh, a former Indian player. First selected to represent India in international hockey in 1989, Dhanraj went on to play for 15 years and participated in four Olympics: 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004. He was the highest scorer in the Bangkok Asian Games and was the only Indian to figure in the World XI during the 1994 World Cup. Dhanraj received the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 1999 and the Padma Shri the next year.

Ashish Ballal (born in 1970): Ballal has represented India at 1992 Olympics, 1990 World Cup, 3 Champions Trophy tournaments (1989, 1993, 1996), two Asian Games (1994, 1998) and two Asia Cups (1989, 1993). Ballal's best moment perhaps came in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games final against South Korea when he saved two goals in the tie-breaker and helped India win a gold at the Asiad after 32 years. He received Arjuna Award in 1997. He is considered one of the finest goalkeepers India has produced.

Gagan Ajit Singh (born in 1980): From a family of Olympians, Gagan Ajit Singh first made his apperance on the national circuit after scoring 27 goals in the 1997 Junior Nationals for the Air-India Academy. He was the captain of the Indian Junior World Cup in 2001. He recived the Arjuna Award in 2003. He represented India at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. He was named in the All-Asian men's hockey team in 2002 after the Busan Asiad in 2002.

In the current lot:

Sandeep Singh (born in 1986): One of the best drag-flickers in the game today, Sandeep Singh is a former captain of the Indian national team. It was under his captaincy that India clinched the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2009. He was the top scorer in the tournament. Sandeep Singh alone decimated French in the Olympic qualifiers final this year by scoring five goals from penalty corners. With 16 goals, he was the highest scorer in this year's Olympic qualifiers. An Arjuna Award recipient, Sandeep Singh was seriously injured in an accidental gunshot while travelling in a train. He was almost paralysed but came back with an iron will and donned the national jersey.

Sardara Singh (born in1986): Sardara or Sardar Singh is the captain of Hyderabad Sultans and captained the Chandigarh Dynamos in the Premier Hockey League. He plays for the centre-half position for both the Chandigarh Dynamos and Indian national team. He also became the youngest captain for the Indian national hockey team in the 2008 Sultan Azlan Shah hockey. He was adjudged the best player in both the 2010 and 2012 editions of Sultan Azlan Shah hockey besides the London Olympic qualifiers earlier this year.

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